Why the GOP Wants Carnage at US Colleges

April 27th, 2024 - by Adam Serwer / The Atlantic

Armed police confront peaceful protests at NYU.

Calls for the National Guard to Stop
Campus Protests Are Not about Safety
Adam Serwer / The Atlantic

(April 25, 2024) — Tom Cotton has never seen a left-wing protest he didn’t want crushed at gunpoint.

On Monday, the Arkansas senator demanded that President Joe Biden send in the National Guard to clear out the student protests at Columbia University against the Israel-Hamas war, which he described as “the nascent pogroms at Columbia.” Last week, Cotton posted on X, “I encourage people who get stuck behind the pro-Hamas mobs blocking traffic: take matters into your own hands. It’s time to put an end to this nonsense.” He later deleted the post and reworded it so that it did not sound quite so explicitly like a demand for aspiring vigilantes to lynch protesters.

This is a long-standing pattern for Cotton, who enjoys issuing calls for violence that linger on the edge of plausible deniability when it comes to which groups, exactly, are appropriate targets for lethal force. During the George Floyd protests of 2020, Cotton demanded that the US military be sent in with orders to give “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters,” insisting unconvincingly in a later New York Times op-ed that he was not conflating peaceful protesters with rioters.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who had raised a fist in apparent solidarity with the mob that assaulted the Capitol on January 6 before fleeing through the halls to avoid them once the riot began, echoed Cotton’s call for deploying the National Guard to Columbia. (Both menas it turns out, are in favor of some quarter for “insurrectionists” who happen to be on the right side.)

What Cotton and Hawley are doing is simple demagoguery. When Donald Trump was inaugurated president, he spoke of an “American carnage” that he would suppress by force. Trump’s attempts to apply the maximum level of violence to every problem did not solve any of them.

Migration at the southern border surged in 2019 until a crackdown in Mexico and the coronavirus pandemic brought it down; Trump’s presidency ended with a rise in violent crime (another likely pandemic effect, among other factors) and with widespread civil-rights protests.

The protesters at Columbia and other college campuses around the United States are voicing opposition to US support for Israel’s war against Hamas, which began in retaliation for a Hamas raid that killed some 1,200 Israelis last October. Since then, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, about 2 million displaced, and many driven to the brink of starvation. No sympathy for Hamas or anti-Semitism is necessary to believe, as I do, that Israel’s conduct here has been horrifically disproportionate; the US government itself has acknowledged substantial evidence of human-rights violations by Israeli forces as well as by Hamas.

There have been documented instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric and harassment surrounding the protests; a rabbi associated with Columbia University urged Jewish students to stay away, and the university’s president, Nemat Shafik, recommended that students not living on campus attend classes remotely for the time being. In the same way that the Israeli government’s conduct does not justify anti-Semitism, the anti-Semitic acts of some individuals associated with the protests do not justify brutalizing the protesters. As of this morning, the National Guard had not been called in, but hundreds of students participating in demonstrations across the country have been arrested.

Students calling for ceasefire arrested at Yale.

If the campus authorities need to act to protect the safety of any of their students, including from threats, discrimination, and harassment, then they must. But the university is facing pressure from pro-Israel donors and elected officials to shut down the protests, less because they are dangerous than because these powerful figures find the protesters and their demands offensive.

Yet the kinds of mass violence and unrest that would justify deploying the National Guard are currently absent, and the use of state force against the protesters is likely to escalate tensions rather than quell them. The New York Times reported that after Shafik asked the NYPD to clear the protesters’ tent city located on a campus quad, the “decision to bring in the police also unleashed a wave of activism across a growing number of college campuses.” As for Columbia, NYPD Chief John Chell told the Columbia Spectator that “the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.” The arrests did not end the protest.

The calls from Cotton and Hawley to deploy the National Guard are not about anyone’s safety — many of the pro-Palestinian protesters, against whom the might of the US military would be aimed, are Jewish. As the historian Kevin Kruse notes, sending the National Guard to campuses facing Vietnam War protests led to students being killed, including some who had nothing to do with the protests, rather than to anyone being safer. The most likely outcome based on past precedent would be an escalation to serious violence. Which might be the idea.

As we approach the summer of 2024, the economy is growing, migration to the border has declined at least temporarily owing to what appears to be a new crackdown by Mexican authorities, and in many major cities, crime is returning to historic lows, leaving protests as the most suitable target for demagoguery.

Biden administration’s support for Israel divides Democrats and unites Republicans, so the longer the issue remains salient, the better it is for the GOP. More broadly, the politics of “American carnage” do not work as well in the absence of carnage.

Far-right politics operate best when there is a public perception of disorder and chaos, an atmosphere in which the only solution such politicians ever offer can sound appealing to desperate voters. Social-media bubbles can suffice to maintain this sense of siege among the extremely online, but cultivating this perception among most voters demands constant reinforcement.

This is why the Republican Party is constantly seeking to play up chaos at the border and an epidemic of crime in American cities, no matter what the reality of the situation might actually be. Cotton and Hawley are demanding that Biden use force against the protesters not just because they consistently advocate for state violence against those who support causes they oppose as a matter of principle, but also because any escalation in chaos would redound to their political benefit.

They don’t want to solve any problems, they want to make them worse so that the public will warm to “solutions” that will continue to make them worse. They don’t want order, or safety, or peace. What they want is carnage.

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